WASHINGTON — Filing a federal tax return is about to get more complicated because of the health-care law. But people shouldn’t expect much help from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The tax agency says only about half of the 100 million people expected to call this year will be able to reach a person. Callers who do get through may have to wait on hold for 30 minutes or more to talk to someone who will answer only the simplest questions.
“Taxpayers who need help are not getting it, and tax compliance is likely to suffer over the longer term if these problems are not quickly and decisively addressed,” said a report Wednesday by agency watchdog Nina Olson.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says budget cuts are forcing the agency to reduce taxpayer services and other functions. The number of audits will decline, technology upgrades will be delayed and the agency might be forced to shut down and furlough workers for two days this year, Koskinen said.
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The IRS will no longer help low-income taxpayers fill out their returns, and tax refunds could be delayed for people who file paper returns. “It couldn’t be worse timing,” Koskinen said of the budget cuts.
The IRS deals with 200 million Americans, more than three times as many as any other federal agency, Olson’s report notes, and as the workload has risen, resources have plummeted. During the last decade, the agency has fielded 11 percent more individual returns, 18 percent more business returns and a whopping 70 percent more telephone calls.
Congress cut the IRS by $346 million for the budget year that ends Sept. 30. Koskinen says the agency’s $10.9 billion budget is its lowest since 2008. When adjusted for inflation, the budget hasn’t been this low since 1998, he said.
Republicans in Congress oppose the health-care law, so some have been working to starve the IRS of funds just as its role in implementing the law ramps up.
Koskinen said the agency is required by law to help implement the health program. “The only places we have discretion are in information technology, tax enforcement, customer service.”
Having fewer enforcement agents will cost at least $2 billion in lost tax revenue this year, Koskinen estimated.
Service problems at the IRS will also make it harder for well-intentioned taxpayers to comply with the law, said Olson, who is the National Taxpayer Advocate, an independent office within the IRS.
“Without adequate support, many taxpayers will be frustrated, some will make potentially costly mistakes, others will incur higher compliance costs when forced to seek information and assistance from tax professionals,” she said. “Still others,” Olson said, “will simply give up and not file.”
Olson released her annual report to Congress on Wednesday, less than a week before the start of tax-filing season Tuesday.
For the first time, tax filers will have to report information about their health insurance during the previous year. For most people who get health coverage through work or through government programs such as Medicaid, it will mean simply checking a box.
Others who got insurance through state and federal marketplaces will have to file a new form, while people who received subsidies will have to provide more detailed information.
People who didn’t have health insurance last year face fines unless they qualify for a waiver, which requires more paperwork.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.